A 12-year-old girl hangs herself (allegedly) and suddenly, she is the face of a city, a province, an island, an archipelago, a country. Her death is followed by screams and yowls of denial: she couldn't have killed herself just because she was poor; she had been abused (perhaps), raped (perhaps), depressed (certainly). . . None of the latter precludes the first contention. Though all women, across the class spectrum, suffer gender violence, the risks triple when one is poor, helpless, the family subject to such tremendous economic pressure that it gets to a point members no longer see one another as human. And depression is chronic among the (unwilling) poor.
It brought back those thoughts the first time I went with some friends on an organizing foray into an urban poor area in the city of Manila. There was this girl who looked ten years old but perhaps was 12, like Davao's Mariannet Amper, hunkered down on the slat-floor of a patchwork house built over a black sewage canal, holding her brother swaddled in a blanket thin and gray with use. She looked at me with eyes so dark, so deep, they were unfathomable. It occurred to me then that were I in her position -- no possibility of escape from a poverty that was really beastly -- I would kill myself, rather than go on day after day in absolute misery.
Very strange thoughts for an activist, one could say, but I was young then and an absolutist. Jesus supposedly said: “the poor ye shall always have with you.“ He was, I think, being bitterly ironic. Mariannet, whose name so echoes the word marionette, a thing dangling powerless at the end of a preordained fate, put the lie to his words. She didn't want to be "always with you." So what happens if the poor all killed themselves? Who then will the rich exploit and brutalize? Think of how much of a huge holocaust that would be, turning cities, towns, villages, mountains and seas uninhabitable? Who would bury them? I can see why the rich and powerful are outraged.
Davao City is the largest in the archipelago in land area, a territory with soil so fertile that outside downtown proper and the bedroom communities, the terrain turns so green it brings a pang of angst over the unhappy fate of Laguna, which used to be called the emerald province, now a hodge-podge of subdivisions, choked traffic and an over-fished and polluted lake. The term emerald must now be applied to Davao; from childhood, I had known of this place as Laguna‘s competitor for the source of sweet lanzones, fabulous mangosteen (which remains my favorite), and of course, the incomparable pomelo.. Aboard a jeep traversing first the paved roads, then the dirt roads and then the mud roads, I keep thinking "emerald" as mile after mile of green unfolds, an occasional reddish-brown earth surfacing, like a gash of blood. Deng, one doesn’t see this in New York.
The air was very moist, likely 99% humidity, which explained the 360 degree riot of foliage. The place was so obviously fertile one felt sorry for it, especially at the sight of the banana plantations, sudden monochromes of dark-green, carved out of the brighter chaos of untamed wilderness. The plantations were like a huge army of Nazi soldiers, shoulder-to-shoulder, huddled in assault formation against what was natural in the landscape. I thought: multinational corporations certainly wouldn’t be able to resist destroying the province’s biodiversity, just as the biodiversity of Laguna, Negros and other locations had been destroyed for the sake of export crops. Not couldn’t, I should correct myself; are not, aren't.
Spend a night or two in the marginalized communities of this area and the idea that poverty can inspire suicide does not seem unreasonable. The communities move and move, edged out by the metastasizing banana plantations, mostly owned by internal migrants from Visayan and Tagalog provinces, who cooperate with multinationals at the despoliation of the archipelago's resources, all for just a few dollars more. They are good Christians, of course, making sure that the poor remained with us. Despite this, the residents of the marginalized communities (I won't name them, since the Philippine military tends to pour into areas where people are nice), majority of them Muslim and Moros, are generous. The conflict here is not religious, they assure me, but rather over resources, over property, over a way of life.
Bananas constitute Davao’s principal export, 60-70% going to Japan which also gobbles up 15% of banana chips. Japan has repeatedly pressured the Philippines into signing one treaty of amity, trade, navigation, etc., after another, to position itself as the country's economic overlord, in partnership with the political and military over-lordship exercised by the U.S.; Japan loves Philippine food, with the same intensity as the US love for Philippine women and labor.
You can't go any bigger business than bananas, where seven-figure amounts are mere bribes to corrupt officials. Three multinationals practically own and control the global trade: Chiquita International (formerly United Fruit, formerly United Brands), Dole (formerly Standard Fruit) and Del Monte. Entire countries, especially in Latin America, serve as the backyard gardens and greenhouses of these companies, rendering them susceptible to pressure, threats and manipulations, in accordance with the corporate profit interests. The outrage such multinationals inspire is epic, enough even to fuel great literature, like Pablo Neruda's Canto and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ A Hundred Years of Solitude.
Nothing seems to be able to stop the multinationals, except nature itself, which created the black and yellow sigatoka fungus that often cuts a banana tree’s yield by 50% to 70%. Sigatoka is endemic to banana plantations, largely because as some Indian scientists pointed out, they are “monoclonal” -- i.e., of one variety only, in contrast to the natural state of growth, which is “polyclonal” -- i.e., diverse. To control sigatoka, for instance, banana plantations have to spray as often as 40 times a year; India, which is polyclonal, sprays only four times a year.
Some 26 chemicals are used to kill sigatoka, or at least try to control it. These chemicals belong to such WHO categories as Class 1-A (extremely hazardous), Class 1-B (hazardous) and Class 2 (moderately hazardous). Mancozeb, one of these chemicals, is listed in California’s Prop 65 carcinogenic list and is suspected to be an endocrine disruptor. These data and others are available on the Internet, with some digging, so please don’t email me asking for sources. You should know what's in the food you eat and how it is grown.
The communities which were kind enough to host friends and myself seemed under tremendous economic and social pressure. The madrasahs were little more than sheds -- corrugated iron sheets over naked posts. In-house running water was mostly absent; only darkness spared me from becoming a public spectacle when I simply had to take a bath in the rain. That means, there were no street lights either, and barely enough electricity in houses. This outward crudeness hid an inner sophistication; my first night’s host was a woman who spoke to me in English and Tagalog and Arabic to another guest, all the while swinging back and forth on a cloth hammock, flip-flops on her feet . And under the lambent twilight, a traditional kulintang band played music, the various instruments handled only by women. All spoke knowingly of social, economic and political complexities, and of course, of history, of a past deliberately obscured. They told me the story of 450 hectares of Moro land paid for in tobacco and trinkets and minimal cash, now a sprawling golf course where Koreans and other foreigners play, accompanied by girl caddies. I asked why girl caddies? The women smile.
Davao has a major prostitution and sex trafficking problem, because of the ships that dock, the business people who come, the US troops who appear occasionally, the tourists on predator trips, the Philippine troops who are not adverse to exploiting the women of what supposedly was their own people, etc., etc., and of course, because the poor is always with us, even in this region where a few (very few) are rapidly enriching themselves by selling the Moro patrimony to multinationals.
These villages nestle among bananas, some wild ones, some native ones, unlike the Cavendish single-variety of the plantations. Cavendish only became popular in the 1950s, when it replaced the Gros Michel (fat michael), which was done in the Panama fungus. And just in case you don't know, commercial banana is mutant, sterile and seedless, reproducing only through cuttings. It can be wiped out (as in extinct!) with one infestation, hence the heavy use of pesticides. The communities are in the path of the aerial spraying conducted over the plantations; the communities use ground water likely contaminated with pesticide run-offs. Asthma has become common; there are reports of birth defects as well.
The poverty is palpable and explainable, really not pre-ordained, but stemming from historical and continuing theft. Only 17 cents of every dollar consumers spend on bananas go to producing countries.
Much of the rest -- as in hundreds of billions of dollars -- is used to sustain lifestyles of greed, self-indulgence and power-madness. If you doubt the latter, check out the history of Dole; at one point, this guy "bought" the whole island of Lahaina in Hawaii, as though it were unpopulated.
At any poor community, children are ubiquitous. A teacher from the US had to point this out to me, so used was I to the sight. "Children everywhere, at all hours of the day," she said, "meaning, they are not in school."
In Compostela Valley, Davao, a nine-year-old who WAS going to school was shot dead by the Philippine military, a murder later justified by the canard that she was a "child soldier."
This is one fate for poor children in this land.
Mariannet's response to her fate was to hang herself.
This is one choice for children in this land.
Someone should work to create other fates, other choices. -- ##